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France's 'stolen children' return to Réunion island

By Alison Hird, Frédérique Lebel

A shameful episode in France's postcolonial history will be brought under the spotlight in March when a government-appointed commission delivers its findings. Between 1966 and 1982 more than 2,000 children were taken from the Indian Ocean island of Réunion and resettled in rural parts of mainland France. Despite promises made at the time, they never saw their biological parents again.

In December 2017 a group of these "stolen" children returned to the island, some for the first time, in search of their roots.

Maryse Ferragut is used to going on the road. She is a lorry driver. But it took her more than 45 years to make the long journey back to her birthplace of Paris-Saint-Denis on Réunion island, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean.

Abandoned as a baby, she was five when she was put on a plane for the mainland to be adopted in Gers in central France.

Four half-sisters came to welcome her at the airport. But Maryse knows reconnecting with her biological family will be a long process.

"You can't describe what you feel, it's like you've always known one another but you don't. I'm not euphoric, it'll take time," she told RFI's Frédérique Lebel.

Maryse found four half sisters on her trip back to Réunion island. But it's also about finding out "who she is". © RFI/Frédérique Lebel

Maryse is one of 2,150 children taken from often poor families in Réunion and transplanted to the mainland between 1966 and 1982.

The resettlement scheme was thought up by the island's MP, Michel Debré, a mainland politician who was the first prime minister of the post-war Fifth Republic.

He aimed to relieve its overcrowded orphanages and repopulate the French countryside - areas such as the Creuse department in central France, which were largely uninhabited.

Some families were encouraged to let their children go with promises of better education and brighter futures. They were also given assurances they could come back each year to see their families. But that never happened.

Some children were adopted, others placed into children's homes or religious institutions.

Maryse was adopted in 1973 at the age of five and half, by a couple in the Gers region. She describes the mother as "alcoholic and neglectful", critical of her Creole origins.

A public scandal

Maryse was encouraged to make this trip by Valérie Andanson - head of the Fédération des enfants deracinés (Federation of uprooted children) support group.

"We have to speak about this before it’s too late," Valérie told RFI, pointing to the house she was born in, a shack made of corrugated iron.

One of six children, she says her family was poor but that that was no justification for what happened.

"It would have been better to help families on the island, so our parents could have kept us. I was forced into exile, transplanted like an object. I was only three years old when they put me on the plane. It’s heart-breaking."

Like so many of the victims, it took Valérie and Maryse decades to find out anything about their true origins.

"It’s not normal to go for so long without news of your biological family," says Valérie. "And above all to be lied to, as most of us were. It’s a public scandal, we need to know what happened."

Vague memories of childhood

Valérie remembers nothing of the island itself but recounts her earliest memories.

"I see myself [on the plane] with all these brown-skinned children," she remembers. "And I have memories of arriving in the Creuse. I found out later from older children that when we arrived there were so many of us that they had to put mattresses on the floor.

"We slept on the floor in kitchens, corridors, everywhere. What’s incredible is that all my family was exiled at the same time. There were six of us: two boys, four girls. We were separated."

For years they would bump into one another in La Brionne in the Creuse, without realising they were siblings.

When she arrived in mainland France, Valérie was put into a foster family but "it didn't go well".

"I prefer not to talk about it, to protect myself. What I can say is that the only place I felt safe was under the table. And I remember a social worker coming. For once we ate, I wore decent clothes."

When, at the age of seven, she was finally adopted by a loving family she says it took a year for her to allow her adoptive father to come near her.

She recalls racism in the early years. "They called me Negress or Snow White at school". But at home no one talked about her origins. She was just sunburnt "like daddy in summer".

So it came as a huge shock when, aged 16, she found out she was adopted.

"It was like being hit with hammer. All these questions I’d been asking myself for so long. I told my mum I needed to know what had happened. She said 'Yes, you were adopted, your name was Marie-Germaine Perigonne, you were born in Réunion. And you have five brothers and sisters, they live nearby.' Can you imagine what a shock it was?"

Valérie has coped better than many. One of her brothers committed suicide, a sister is in a psychiatric hospital.

Valérie's place of birth was falsified. At Saint Paul city hall, she finally gets the document proving she was born in Réunion. © RFI/Frédérique Lebel

Falsified documents

A few years ago Valérie spent a decade in Réunion trying to reconnect with family members. She found her godfather, Anaconda. But she's had an ongoing battle with the authorities to establish her real identity.

When she arrived in central France aged three the French authorities changed her place of birth from Saint-Paul, in Réunion, to Brionne.

She has spent years trying to get the paperwork corrected, to prove that Marie- Germaine Perrigone born in Saint-Paul in Réunion and Valérie Andanson born in Brionne are one and the same. But she has always hit a brick wall.

Returning to Saint-Paul's council offices for the 10th time she is amazed to be handed a certificate showing her birth name Marie-Germaine Perrigone, her date of birth and place of birth.

"I’m over the moon," she told RFI. "I can finally prove I was born here in Réunion."

The episode suggests French authorities are acknowledging their responsibility in what happened to people like Valérie.

A collective tragedy

The shift began in 2002 when one of the victims, Jean-Jacques Martial, sued the government for "kidnapping and sequestration of minors, roundup and deportation". He asked for a "symbolic" one billion euros.

He lost the case but it brought the scandal to public attention.

Former wards of state discovered that their individual suffering was part of a greater collective drama.

Groups such as Rasinn Anler (Roots in the air in Creole) and the Fédération des Enfants Déracinés are working hard to shed light on what happened.

In 2014 the National Assembly voted in favour of a resolution to raise awareness over the resettlement scandal and to do "everything in its power to help former wards [of the state] reconstruct their personal history". It recognised the state had some moral responsibility for what happened and an investigating committee was set up.

France also agreed to pay a return flight every three years for each of the 2,150 victims.

It has allowed 67-year-old Marlène Morin to return for the first time.

She came with her daughter Aurore who realised her mum was a "stolen" child after seeing a TV report on the subject.

While some victims were babies or toddlers, Marlène was a 15-year-old ward of state when a social worker convinced her to leave the island with the promise of better education opportunities and a return visit home each year to see her sister.

The reality was very different. She found herself working as a maid in a family in the Creuse.

"The class lasted maybe two hours a day and after that we had to work: gardening, housework. It wasn’t what I wanted at all," she told RFI.

Marlène came to Réunion with her daughter Aurore. She discovered her mother was a victim of this public scandal via a TV report. © RFI/Frédérique Lebel

In a bid to recognise, and perhaps repair, some of the damage caused through this forced resettlement, the regional council in Réunion allowed Marlène, Maryse and Valérie to consult the files dating back to when they were wards of state.

In theory they contain all the information about their early years on the island, their biological family, and the manner in which they were uprooted.

But Marlène's file has been lost. She goes away empty-handed.

Maryse is more fortunate: a wad of photocopies open a window onto her start in life.

She discovers her mum was unstable, both she and her sister were put into care at an early age, that there had been no request for any kind of "family adoption".

Maryse sees the word "deceased" printed next to her name.

"It's a mistake," admits the civil servant. One of many.

A commission investigating what happened to Maryse, Marlène, Valérie and more than 2,000 others is to present its report to the government in March. Some of the victims are demanding the French president offer an official apology.

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